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Way-Too-Early Power Rankings: Conference USA Edition

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With the 2020 season officially in the books, let’s take an early look at Conference USA during the offseason.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 North Texas at UTSA Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To call Conference USA’s 2020 season a rollercoaster would be an understatement. While Bill Clark and his UAB Blazers claimed their second C-USA title in four seasons, the year was far from complete, with seven teams having at least five games canceled either by themselves or the conference.

In total, 35% of the league’s scheduled games (58 overall) were canceled, leaving the majority of C-USA teams with more questions and than answers entering the offseason. That said, let’s take an early look at each team as we approach February’s National Signing Day.

Note: Old Dominion was not included in the power rankings due to their opting out of the 2020 season.

1. UTSA

Frank Wilson’s tenure was at the helm of the Roadrunners was cut short due to a lack of productivity on the field. However, he left the program far from bare with talent for incoming head coach Jeff Traylor, who subsequently led UTSA to a seven-win season — the program’s highest win total since 2013.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Stephen F. Austin at UTSA
Trevor Harmanson was all over the field for UTSA in 2020.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Traylor returns arguably C-USA’s top offensive player in junior running back Sincere McCormick. A pair of sophomores in Zakhari Franklin and Joshua Cephus provided consistent receiving targets, regardless of who was behind center. On the defensive side, standout safety Rashad Wisdom and linebacker Trevor Harmanson are among the league’s best and punter Lucas Dean is the reigning C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year. If the quarterback position can remain healthy, there is no reason to think that UTSA will not continue trending in the right direction.

2. UAB

The Blazers deserve credit for being the most stable and consistent program in Conference USA over the past four seasons. That level of consistency has resulted in two league titles over the same span. Defense has been Bill Clark’s calling card since the program returned from hiatus, and they will be tasked with replacing stalwart Jordan Smith but all-conference performer Kristopher Moll announced that he’ll return for the 2021 season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 17 WKU at UAB
DeWayne McBride looks to tote the rock for UAB in 2021.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

They also return defensive back Will Boler and defensive lineman Antonio Moultrie. On the offensive side of the ball, running back DeWayne McBride is more than capable of picking up where Spencer Brown leaves off. Getting consistency out of the quarterback position will determine whether the Blazers can make another run in 2021.

(Note: An earlier version misstated that Moll would be graduating.)

3. Florida Atlantic

FAU’s 2020 season may be looked at through a completely different prism if they were able to take on Marshall with a full roster. Instead, the Owls were severely shorthanded due to COVID-related issues and fell to the would-be East division champs in a tightly-contested game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Florida Atlantic at Marshall
Jaylen Joyner looks to become one of the premier pass rushers in C-USA.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite a 5-4 record, which included a loss to lowly Southern Miss, Willie Taggart returns a majority of a defense that finished among the top third of C-USA teams in total defense. Defensive linemen Evan Anderson and Jaylen Joyner are budding stars, along with veterans Ahman Ross and Zyon Gilbert. The major question for FAU will be at the quarterback position. Redshirt freshman Javion Posey showed flashes of potential, but expect the Owls to add a signal-caller in the transfer portal.

4. Marshall

For Thundering Herd fans, the indelible feeling around the 2020 season will be thoughts of what could have been. The team raced out to a 7-0 start, being ranked as high as 15th in the Coaches Poll — only to lose their final three contests of the season — and head coach Doc Holliday’s 11-year tenure came to an end in early January.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 24 Florida Atlantic at Marshall
Corey Gammage emerged as a big-play target in Huntington.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Enter 37-year-old Charles Huff as the 30th head coach in program-history and there’s reason for excitement in Huntington. The former associate head coach and running backs coach at Alabama has the league’s top-performing signal-caller in Grant Wells returning, along with big-play targets Corey Gammage and Broc Thompson. The program will be tasked with replacing star running back Brenden Knox and standout linebacker Tavante Beckett, but have more than enough talent to again contend in the East.

5. La Tech

Count the Bulldogs as another team whose 2020 was shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting left tackle Willie Allen chose to opt-out prior to the start of the season, followed by his replacement in Donavaughn Campbell, receiver Adrian Hardy and running back Justin Henderson in late November. After being one of the most dynamic backs in C-USA the season prior, Henderson was never able to get going and was usurped by veteran Isreal Tucker.

Louisiana Tech v Texas
Skip Holtz will look to put the challenges of 2020 in the rearview.
Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Despite all of the roster changes, Skip Holtz managed a .500 season out of his team and narrowly missed winning the West division. FCS transfer Luke Anthony emerged from the preseason quarterback battle to provide a steady presence at the position but suffered a gruesome injury in the team’s penultimate game. His status, along with the development of Aaron Allen, will go a long way to deciding the team’s 2021. At the quarterback’s disposal will be talented wideouts Griffin Hebert, Smoke Harris and dynamic receiver/returner Wayne Toussaint.

6. Charlotte

Will Healy’s attempt to build on the success he achieved during his debut season in Charlotte was never able to get off the ground due to numerous game cancelations. The Niners had a league-high nine games canceled, making Healy’s job as a master motivator all the more challenging.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 10 Charlotte at North Texas
Victor Tucker is still the premier receiver in Conference USA.
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On the field, Charlotte returns one of the league’s top receiving talents in Victor Tucker and two-year starter Chris Reynolds at quarterback. The defense will be linebacker Tyler Murray, who led the team in tackles (48) and defensive back Lance McMillan. Two keys to Charlotte’s fortunes in 2021 will be identifying a running back who can fill the departures of Tre Harbison and Aaron McCallister, along with replacing standout center Jaelin Fisher and the transfer of highly-touted offensive lineman Ty’Kieast Crawford after one season in the Queen City.

7. Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers were one of only two C-USA teams to play 11 regular-season games last season. Despite having an almost full slate of games, it’s still difficult to know what to make of Tyson Helton’s 2020 team. WKU’s four conference wins came over teams with a combined record of 8-22 and their fifth victory was over FCS UT Chattanooga.

Houston Baptist v Texas Tech
Bailey Zappe makes the jump to the FBS level at Western Kentucky.
Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Helton is reshaping his offense around transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe and new offensive coordinator Zach Kittley. Zappe was highly-prolific during his three seasons at FCS Houston Baptist, throwing for over 8,400 yards and 73 touchdowns in his collegiate career — under the guidance of Kittley, who was also his offensive coordinator with the Huskies. Helton has signed a total of 12 players from the transfer portal, including two of Zappe’s top targets at HBU in Josh and Jerreth Sterns, along with former North Dakota State running back Adam Cofield — signaling that Helton is clearly in win-now mode.

8. Rice

Mike Bloomgren’s Owls had the latest start to the 2020 season, playing their season-opener against MTSU in late October and finished with a 2-3 record. The season was marked by a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Blue Raiders and a shutout victory over a top-20 Marshall team. Entering 2021, it appears that Rice has finally found a steady quarterback in Texas Christian transfer Mike Collins, who finished the season with 10 passing touchdowns in three starts.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Rice at North Texas
Jake Bailey emerged as a reliable target for Owls’ quarterbacks in Houston.

They are tasked with replacing big-play receiver Austin Trammell, but sophomore wideout Jake Bailey had an excellent season, finishing second on the team in receiving yards. Defense has been a calling card during Bloomgren’s tenure in Houston, but the unit will undoubtedly be hurt by the transfer of linebacker Blaze Alldredge, who announced his transfer to Missouri for his final collegiate season.

9. UTEP

One of the programs most affected by the disjointed Conference USA season undoubtedly was the UTEP Miners. Dana Dimel’s efforts to rebuild the program took a step forward with the team’s 3-5 record — eclipsing the program’s combined win total in the previous three seasons. However, the Miners saw multiple conference games canceled and lost three of their four C-USA games by a combined 16 points.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 UTEP at UTSA
Deion Hankins looks to build upon his impressive 2020 season.
Photo by Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What came out of the 2020 season was the emergence of young talent at the quarterback, running back and receiver positions. Quarterback Gavin Hardison’s 1,419 passing yards was the most a Miner signal-caller has thrown for since 2014, while hometown hero Deion Hankins had nine rushing touchdowns and receiver Jacob Cowing averaged 17 yards per catch last season. Dimel relieved both coordinators of their duties following the season and still has to prove his team can contend in conference play.

10. North Texas

Since Seth Littrell took over at North Texas prior to the 2016 season, the Mean Green have been consistently lighting up the scoreboard in Denton. Despite the graduation of record-setting quarterback Mason Fine, UNT led C-USA in scoring, averaging 34.4 points per game. However, the team’s defensive woes from the past few seasons continued in 2020 with the Mean Green allowing a shade under 43 points per contest.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 North Texas at UTSA
Austin Aune found success during the 2020 season in Denton.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Former SMU head coach Phil Bennett takes over for Clint Bowen as defensive coordinator and his ability to plug the defense will play a large factor in UNT’s 2020 efforts. Former New York Yankees’ minor-leaguer Austin Aune had a solid 2020 and should be the starter with Jason Bean’s entry to the transfer portal. Deonte Simpson will look to shoulder the load of the receiving game with the graduation of Jaelon Darden and multiple receivers entering the transfer portal. Redshirt freshman Oscar Adaway should be the clear-cut number one running back in 2021.

11. Southern Miss

While plenty of C-USA teams were affected by the scheduling inconsistencies that the pandemic caused, Southern Miss’ roster was affected before they even took the field in 2020. The Golden Eagles had several players opt-out — including multiple projected starters — prior to the start of the season. First-year head coach Will Hall has West Virginia transfer Trey Lowe at the quarterback position and Frank Gore Jr. in the backfield. JUCO transfer Jason Brownlee was a pleasant surprise, becoming one of the top performing receivers in C-USA.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Western Kentucky at Southern Miss
Hayes Maples is one of the most reliable linebackers in Conference USA.
Photo by Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The key will be fixing a defense that suffered the majority of the lost starters and had their struggles stopping opposing teams. Sophomore linebacker Hayes Maples emerged as one of the top defensive performers in C-USA, totaling 91 tackles, including 8.5 for loss.

12. Middle Tennessee

After years of relative sucess led by the father-son duo of Rick and Brent Stockstill, the Blue Raiders are coming off of back-to-back losing seasons. Additionally, they’re faced with the team’s top player over the past two years, quarterback Asher O’Hara, choosing to enter the transfer portal in late December. The elder Stockstill will look to reshape the offense into a more pro-style scheme and transfer quarterback Bailey Hockman will be a large part of those efforts.

North Carolina State v Wake Forest
Former NC State signal-caller Bailey Hockman takes his talents to Murfreesboro.
Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

MTSU must also identify a rushing game outside of the quarterback position. The leading rusher from the running back spot over the past two seasons is senior Chaton Mobley, who has rushed for a total of 574 yards combined over that span.

13. FIU

In his first three seasons at FIU, Butch Davis led FIU to three consecutive bowl appearances and an upset of crosstown heavyweight Miami. However, the Panthers are 0-7 since the win against the Hurricanes — spanning over 420 days since the program’s last victory. Last season’s 0-5 record was due in large part to a litany of injuries to starters and a revolving door at quarterback.

Old Dominion v Florida International
D’Vonte Price will be depended upon to carry the offensive load in Miami.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The positive is Davis has amassed top-tier recruiting classes during his time at FIU and there’s no shortage of talent on the roster — albeit much of it unproven — for the Panthers to return to contention in C-USA quickly. Running back D’Vonte Price led C-USA in yards per carry (6.8) and was second in yards per game (116.2) despite a passing game that finished 121st in the nation in yards per contest with 123.4. The offensive line is steady and returns three starters (Lyndell Hudson, Sione Finau, Dontae Keys).

Veterans Richard and Rishard Dames return to lead a strong secondary, but the run defense has been abysmal, allowing over 150 yards rushing 20 times over their last 31 contests. Davis made changes at both coordinator positions, but his team — and his own fortunes rest on whether they can stabilize the quarterback position.